Uh-oh. For a moment there, I thought I was going to have to agree with David Brooks, and then I’d have to retire from the internet and live in a cave and flagellate myself until the stupidity was purged. He has written a column in which he says secularism has to be more than simple rationalism, and the opening had me worried that it was going to sound like my schtick:
As secularism becomes more prominent and self-confident, its spokesmen have more insistently argued that secularism should not be seen as an absence — as a lack of faith — but rather as a positive moral creed. Phil Zuckerman, a Pitzer College sociologist, makes this case as fluidly and pleasurably as anybody in his book, “Living the Secular Life.”
But I needn’t have worried! The rest of the column sinks into reverential glurge as he uses that idea of a positive atheism as an excuse to tediously flog us all with his special brand of pastoral dimness. He’s trying to smugly tell us that religion has done all the work for us, so being secular is re-inventing the wheel, and gosh, you guys must be willing to work really hard if you’re willing to duplicate everything religion already does.
As he describes them, secularists seem like genial, low-key people who have discarded metaphysical prejudices and are now leading peaceful and rewarding lives. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that the secular writers are so eager to make the case for their creed, they are minimizing the struggle required to live by it. Consider the tasks a person would have to perform to live secularism well:
Get ready. Here comes his list of “tasks”.
Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.
Those religious creeds aren’t particularly moral, although it is nice of him to admit that they did evolve, rather than being granted to us by a divine hand. So religion has baggage: stoning for adultery, raging homophobia, justifications for murder, xenophobia, pointless dietary restrictions, etc. It seems to me to be a real advantage to discard that.
Also, notice that phrase: moral philosophies. Philosophers have been wrestling with morality for longer than Christianity has been around, so ditching the dogma of religion does not leave us bereft of philosophical support. We don’t have or want sacred convictions: we want ideals grounded in reality.
This is such a common elision. You’ll often see religious people blindly seque from “being Christian,” for instance, to “being moral,” without realizing that those are two completely different things.
Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice. Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.
Oh, no! You mean secular people aren’t stuck with the groups they are born into, but are free to associate with people whose values better reflect their own? Yes, we have the privilege to build our own communities, rather than being trapped in the tar pit of tradition. This is one of the most wonderful aspects of secularism for many people, because, face it, your “covenantal rituals” are often used to bind people to assholes.
Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths. Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.
Wait. Stop. Why do we need “set times” to pull back from work? Why do we need to reflect on these non-existent “spiritual matters”? Why do we need to do things your way?
I get time off at Christmas because the religious history of our country insists on it. I don’t have any spiritual needs to be met, especially not needs on a Christian timetable, but I’m able to relax and think about my interests, which are not godly, whenever. I intend to ‘celebrate’ Easter by attending a science-fiction convention. My family and I try to get together once a year, usually in the summer, without any kind of superstitious pretext. This is no hardship.
Brace yourself. The flood of Brooks’ bullshit is about to become epic.
Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. It’s not enough to want to be a decent person. You have to be powerfully motivated to behave well. Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him. Secularists have to come up with their own powerful drive that will compel sacrifice and service.
Ugh, no. We don’t need love for an invisible man to motivate us; how about instead being motivated by love for the very real human beings around us? How about redirecting that natural desire for service to helping people who need it, rather than trying to please an imaginary creature? Especially when that imaginary creature, by your own holy books, will not be satisfied with anything less than an eternity of servile worship.
I have a little more respect for believers than Brooks does. I believe that many of them are honestly motivated by a desire to help others, and find happiness in making sacrifices that create joy in people, and that is a good thing. But what I also see is a criminal perversion of that desire by religion, which twists people’s good motivations, trapping them into toiling for the church and the priests, rather than aiding the needy; that lies and distorts, and tricks people into thinking they are doing good by dispensing dogma, when they could be giving others what they actually need. The classic example: sending Bibles to disaster victims.
It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action. Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love. Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.
Oh, fuck that noise. Yes, atheism has to stir the passions to broaden its reach, but we’re not going to do it by selling lies to the people. The appeal of atheism is its truth and honesty, that rather than making up a lot of superstitious bilge and asserting that it is truth, we’ll instead give people the tools to think and learn and test reality for themselves. And as part of that, as part of the truth of human nature, we will not deny love and community, and we’ll respect others because they are our fellow human beings, not magical glowing soul-spirits. People are bones covered with bloody meat and sweaty hairy skin — learn to love that rather than your silly fictional luminescing ghost-thingies.
The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.
The drive for purity: one of the most odious aspects of religion. Instead, recognize that there is no pure anything, and that what is important about human beings is their diversity. Living life is about getting messy.
The drive for self-transcendence: you don’t get that by chanting in a corner or taking DMT. That’s how you get the illusion of transcendence. If you want to become something more, the path involves learning, not prayer.
The drive for sanctification: what the fuck is that? I have no interest in becoming sacred or saintly. Saints are boring and deluded, used as tools to sucker the gullible deeper into a net of lies, so no thank you.
Look, that stuff Brooks wrote is just the usual Brooksian babble, in which he dips into his thesaurus looking for lots of words that reflect piety and devotion and other such godly pissiness, and he’s using them to bash secularism under the guise of giving patronizing advice. Just say no: atheism is not going to evolve into another religion, no matter how often the religious use that claim to insult us.